A conversation with Rabia Latif Khan

On Hazaras in the UK, The Kite Runner, the EU's hypocritical migration deportation policy, Afghan scholars, and more.

During this past year, as a pandemic took hold over us, I started to miss a lot of things. What I missed most, I think, was conversations. I took for granted being able to meet people freely, where we serve as sponges and exchange information and knowledge. So one of the reasons I came up with this newsletter is that it, conveniently, would give me the excuse to talk to people doing great and interesting things, in and around our community. So that’s why I reached out to Rabia Latif Khan. I first came across her on the wonderful world of Twitter. She recently completed a PhD in South Asian Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. Her research explored Hazara ethnic consciousness and Hazara historiography. She also holds an LLM in human rights from SOAS.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity; it was done over Skype. The full interview is currently available for everyone before it moves to subscribers-only. While I try to keep most of this newsletter available to all, I encourage folks to subscribe because some of the better material will be available to subscribers only.


Arash: Hi Rabia! So I reached out to you for this conversation because I've been following you, your work, and your research, mostly on Twitter but how would you best describe your work to folks who might not be very familiar with it?

Rabia: So I recently finished my PhD. I explored Hazara ethnic consciousness and Hazara historiography in my research. I look at the shift in how people identify with their Hazara heritage, and how they understand and present to others what it means to be Hazara, alongside analysing the emerging Hazara historiography project online. I worked specifically in a diasporic context. I researched Hazaras living in England. So I did research interviews in the cities of London, Birmingham and Nottingham. In terms of the Hazara historiography aspect of my research, in the years preceding my PhD, when I was getting to know Hazaras in London, one thing that came up in a lot of the conversations I was having with community members was that dominant accounts of Afghan history either misrepresent or omit Hazara history. So when I was trying to find literature on Hazaras, which was hard to begin with, I noticed that there were a lot of Hazara social media pages and Hazara websites that are documenting Hazara history. And this online space was where a peripheral marginalized history was being preserved. So I became very curious to see what this timeline of indigenous Hazara history consists of and as a result I also wanted to present it within my research.

In terms of identity, my research participants’ lived experiences show that historically, the circumstances of Hazaras as marginal impacted people's own perception of their community and identity, and external discrimination led to people internalizing a self-loathing and seeing their Hazara identity negatively. And this was quite evident in relation to research participants who had spent their teenage years in Kabul and would talk about racial slurs and being made fun of for speaking their dialect of Persian, which is called Hazaragi. But how the post-2001 shift of the Hazaras, and also the preceding 1990s political mobilization of Hazaras, has impacted a positive affirmation of Hazara identity, and taking pride in asserting an identity that was historically marginalized.

Research participants generally were really adamant on distinguishing their religious identity as predominantly Shia Muslims from their ethnic identity as Hazara. They would say, you are born Hazara but you choose your religion, being Hazara is not something we can change. But that isn't to say that some research participants didn't embrace an ethno-religious identity. There was an interesting dynamic in some of the interviews where some research participants would parallel the life of Imam Hussain, who is a very central figure in Shia Islam, and the troubles he went through with the historic and contemporary circumstances of Hazaras, which was a very interesting finding for me. So asserting Hazara identity was very prevalent among research participants alongside distinguishing religion from their ethnicity.

In terms of Hazara historiography, the key events propagated online come up a lot in conversations with community members, but are not adequately discussed in the existing sources on Afghan history. So it was interesting to see what Hazaras feel are important historical events to disseminate to their own community and the wider world. And within this timeline, what's very prevalent is that there are a lot of articles and sources about the insurrection of Hazarajat. So for those who might not know, in the late 1800s, King Abdur Rahman Khan wanted to consolidate his power and take control of lands outside of Kabul that weren't in his control. One of the most violent campaigns at the time was the insurrection of Hazarajat, in the central Hazara territories of Afghanistan. And it wasn't just Hazaras, Pashtuns were also suppressed, Uzbeks were also suppressed, other communities who weren't supportive of his rule were suppressed. But the insurrection of Hazarajat resulted in the first mass migration of Hazaras to Iran and Quetta. So that's become a central theme of what the Hazara scholar Dr Niamatullah Ibrahimi calls a Hazara collective consciousness. So, you see that written about a lot on Hazara web pages and social media sites, and they mention that 65% of Hazaras were massacred at the time.

So this timeline of Hazara history is framed around this very horrific massacre of the community. It then follows on by detailing different instances of subjugation and marginalization against the community, for example, in the early 1900s, Hazaras were the cheapest slaves in Afghanistan. You have this kind of protracted timeline of what I refer to in my research, as marginality, which links historic subjugation to contemporary instances of violence. And you also have a newer timeline of history emerging in these online sources too. The contemporary timeline of Hazara history relates to post-2001. Here we see a lot of international news articles referring to the Hazara gains since the fall of the Taliban regime. So in 20 years, we see a more positive timeline of Hazara history, where their educational achievements are outlined, specifically their achievements in the Kankor, the national university entrance exam. There is also reference to Hazara success in politics as well, like the first female governor of an Afghan province was a Hazara lady, Dr. Habiba Sarābi. And the first chairperson of the Afghanistan Independence Human Rights Commission was Dr. Sima Samar, who is also Hazara. So although you do see that this historic timeline of subjugation and marginalization still seeps into the present, because there are sadly targeted attacks against Hazaras in Afghanistan and Pakistan currently, now we're also seeing another timeline of community achievements and increasing social capital, relating to the last 20 years. 

Arash: So it's maybe a little bit shameful as a pretty privileged member of the Afghan diaspora to not know this certain part of my own history about Afghanistan, it’s people and so forth, that’s been ignored and swept away. I’ve also personally noticed, and you alluded to it in the newest part of the timeline, in the past few year's we’ve seen some increased discussions and solidarity with Hazaras that pushes back on some of this revisionist history and narrative that was created. So aside from the steep learning lessons for people like myself, is there something you would attribute to the discussion being a little bit more fruitful than it was before?

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Rabia: One thing that was quite interesting to me is how the youth really want to move away from the politics of the homeland and all the kind of tensions that the older generations have had to deal with. So some of the younger respondents in my research were really adamant about reaching out to other Afghan ethnic groups and building bridges and links, because what they have noticed with the previous generations was that, whatever ethnic tensions existed back home would come over to the new country of residence. For them, that was sad because they kind of envisioned that they’re in a new society, they can start afresh, and it doesn't help the community as a whole to progress if you're bringing those issues over into a new context. And this was something that I was informed about by Afghans of different ethnic backgrounds, both prior to and during my research. So it was very interesting to see that there is real assertiveness on this issue among the younger generations to really build bridges and come together, as an Afghan collective, because of the belief that these kinds of tensions and political issues manifesting in the diaspora is not helping the community. The interesting thing for me, personally, is that I've noticed through social media that there seems to be a lot of solidarity, seminars, and events to acknowledge and discuss the past, more so in North America it seems. But sadly, in the UK context, from my own interactions, unfortunately, the Afghan diaspora tends to be more fragmented here. And I'm not sure what the reason for that could be. 

Arash: So I’m sure your research is extensive and involves a lot of data points and things like that. What was maybe something that came across as the most interesting or shocking in terms of Hazaras as in the UK?

Rabia: A general thing about research on Afghans and specifically on Hazaras, is how there's such limited research about Afghans in Europe, even though they are now a diaspora community that's been settled here for some time. As a refugee community, they've been here for over four decades. In the case of Afghans, it's very, shockingly low. I really wasn't expecting it, because, given the timeline, it's so long, you'd expect a bit more research, and especially if you consider some of the existing work that does exist, says that work on the ground in Afghanistan became hard for some time because of the civil war, and then NATO presence. That doesn't really explain why that would be the case in somewhere like Germany or the UK or Sweden, right? So that was a real shock to me.

So within my research, I basically constructed a timeline of Hazara migration to the UK as that didn't exist before, given the limited existing research. So now, there is this academic source which explains when Hazaras started to come to the UK and which places they originally migrated from.

One thing that was very interesting to me in the research interviews was that there was this attachment to a Buddhist heritage claim among some of my research participants, which I wasn't aware of before. And obviously, people will be aware of the Bamyan Buddhas being present in central Afghanistan which is what this point relates to. The interesting thing was how some people would claim especially in relation to religion, those who were very adamant against constructing an ethno-religious identity, that Hazaras were historically Buddhist, and that was thier religion before Islam came [to Afghanistan]. So we are the indigenous people of central Afghanistan, who built the statues, and we were Buddhists before we became Muslim.

And in terms of identity more broadly, one of my interview questions was how would you explain what it means to be Hazara to someone who really has no familiarity with your community? Here I was expecting textbook answers, like “we’re a distinct ethnic group or ethno-religious group”, but the vast majority of the interviewees presented abstract notions of what it means to be Hazara. For example, to be Hazara means to be resilient. To be Hazara means to overcome oppression. To be Hazara means to be tolerant and strive for education and women's rights and democracy. These themes came up so much in my interviews. So that really fascinated me, that identity was related to values and ideology, as opposed to distinct identity categories that you read about in the literature.

Arash: So I saw your piece about the representation of Hazaras in popular culture. Those three examples are very fascinating to me, as somebody who has many discussions with fellow Afghan creatives in the diaspora. What is diversity, representation, it’s a big conversation topic. What does accurate representation look like? I guess, what do you assign that to, this tiny bit of paradigm shift to?

Rabia: As someone who's non-Afghan and a researcher, the thing that intrigued me in the Hazara specific case was critiques of the Kite Runner that I was unaware of before. I have a very have strong affection for that book in terms of the way it's written, and it really pulls at the heartstrings. And when I read it, I was really emotional throughout. But what was interesting to me is in conversations with Hazaras, these were casual conversations, not really related to my research, was how some people would criticise the book. I had no idea that people saw the book in a negative way, whether it's how the NATO invasion, intervention is portrayed, or in terms of Pashtun representation, which is a hot topic. The criticisms I heard were about Hazara victimhood and the kind of meek, passive representation of Hazaras. That's not to undermine the suffering of Hazara historically, but to also appreciate and acknowledge the fact that the community has made great strides in many fields in the last 20 years. That's now a part of their history that can't be ignored. So that was kind of what fuelled the article, the need to also talk about this new chapter of Hazara history. But one thing that frustrates me as someone who is not from the community, is what people know about Afghanistan. In the UK context, probably similar to the US, it's about war, the Taliban, opium. You have these kind of buzzwords that are attached to Afghanistan. That isn't to take away from the fact that there is and there has been a war going on for over four decades now. People are still suffering, sadly. But just to say that there is another side of Afghanistan. There's so much more to the people and the country than war, right? And that frustrated me so much. The fact that people don't even know that about the country's Buddhist heritage or Zoroastrian heritage. Afghanistan was the center of Buddhist learning. You say that to the average British person, they'll think you're joking, or messing around. They would not take that seriously. The religious diversity. Not too long ago there was even a Jewish community in Afghanistan. It's not just about religion. Even linguistically, you have so many cultures and ethnic groups. It's a country that is so unique because of all the different cultures within, but it also has so many cultural connections to the wider region. So that's why, when some people refer to Afghanistan as the heart of Asia you understand why, right? So it's just all these little things, as someone who's trying to learn and educate themselves and look beyond the war.

Arash: So we’re essentially on the 20-year anniversary of the Taliban destroying the Bamyan Buddha statues. I think that was such a clear memory, for me personally. It’s seared into my memory as a very young teenager. It was a world event. And here we are 20 years later. Twenty years is a lifetime, but on some days, it maybe seems certain things have not progressed as much or maybe even regressed in Afghanistan. The Taliban are still, sadly, clinging on to some kind of power. Then, you have EU countries tweeting about how they condemn their violence while also deporting migrants back to Afghanistan. Have any seen of your research participants reacted to this current situation much?

Rabia: I haven't, to be honest. My interviews were conducted over three years ago, so the peace process may have just only been starting then. Obviously, there have been rights that have been gained post-2001 [in Afghanistan], and people are not willing to let those go. Women in education, women in the workplace. It's not just women themselves, you have male counterparts, who are very supportive. So it was more discussions about how the mindset has changed. Not changed, changed is the wrong word. With the younger generation, they've mainly grown up through this post-2001 phase. So, it will not be so easy for them to have to engage in a process which will result in regression. It's not like when we talk about the Taliban, they're a group that formed 100 years ago and are now re-emerging again. No, people have lived through that regime which was in power not so long ago. It's not a case of it being some really ancient history that you can kind of try to reconcile with and come to the understanding that maybe things have changed. So you can understand people's fear and reluctance for any kind of agreement which gives the group more power than they already have. I'm very sympathetic to why people are very fearful and not supportive of this initiative. But in terms of the example you've just given about the Bamyan Buddhas, that's another great example. It was literally only 20 years ago. They were blown up, because the official claim was that they were idols and it goes against the religion. The Taliban was literally saying this two decades ago! Have things really changed drastically in such a short space of time? I think that it’s all very concerning.

And to the point of the situation of Afghan refugees in Europe, it's just so deplorable to me. There's absolutely no justification. For countries that talk about human rights and the rights of minorities, they’re actually very hypocritical. This is fundamentally a breach of international law. You cannot return vulnerable people to unsafe countries. That’s enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention, and you're doing that time and again. It's really astounding, and it's just really sad, to be honest, more than anything else. A country whose people have suffered so much, come overseas to find sanctuary and they're told no, we don't believe it, we are going to label you as economic migrants, we're going to say you're coming from a safe country, when there's ample evidence to prove the opposite. So it's clearly a political tactic to justify deportations.

Arash: Sometimes in my work, I happen to work with non-Afghans on Afghanistan issues and it’s always kind of an interestingly pleasant experience. For example, former service people who served in Afghanistan in the past and who now deeply object to the military troop presence there. So you know, you're one of those non-Afghans who came to care to some degree about Afghans and I'm just wondering what the process was of that, of that, how that came about?

Rabia: My story is so boring. I have to apologize for that. So my parents are originally from Kashmir, but I was born and brought up in the UK. And I knew nothing about Afghanistan. I think I could tell you that the capital was Kabul, but that was about it. It was more by, I was going to say, by chance, but I don't know if that's the right term. 

So I was a law undergrad and one thing that came up in a lot of our classes was like trying to understand Iraq from an international law perspective, and whether it was legal or illegal, to kind of take it away from the moral argument. So that came up in quite a few of my classes, but nobody asked, or wanted to know about Afghanistan. And I used to think, guys that started just over a year before Iraq and we have already forgotten about it! So it just confused me why Afghanistan wasn't there in people's consciousness. And then even the professors would also be like, I'm not too well-read on it to actually give you a yes or no answer. I was really taken aback by that.

Then it was just basically self-study and I tried to read about NATO presence in Afghanistan and try to understand it from a legal perspective. And as I mentioned earlier, I was very ignorant, I didn't know anything about Afghanistan. That meant that every source I was looking at was just so interesting to me. And the more and more I was reading, I was going away from all these law books to read about history and culture. So everything I was reading about Afghanistan just really fascinated me. I was like, this is the most interesting country on Earth. Like, oh my God, more people need to read about this place. Especially because at that point, all I knew about Afghanistan was the war, right?

So learning all this new information was really an education for me outside of my classes. And then one particular thing that stood out for me is that I came across the so-called “Shia Mongols of Afghanistan.” And I know that kind of terminology is contentious now. But at the time, when you only know that Kabul is the capital of Afghanistan, you don't realize why that's a problem. So, then I just got so intrigued and wanted to learn more about this particular community. In around 2012, I started attending community events, and then got to know more and more Hazaras in London. So that's how that whole thing about the Hazara angle of my research came about. I got acquainted with Hazaras in London, and after about three or four years thought, okay, I'd like to do some research and learn more about the community through conducting research, because it's quite limited. So just to kind of get educated and learn from the community themselves. But more generally, it was just me getting frustrated with my classmates and professors at university that kind of fuelled the whole thing. But it was just a bit haphazard, and it doesn't really make sense. But that's how it basically happened.  

Arash: I don’t think that’s boring at all! How can folks best keep up with your work?

Rabia: The best way to keep updated about anything published from my research will be if people want to follow me on Twitter. If people have any questions about literature they're more than welcome to DM me there as well. And I can point them to sources. Or if they have any questions about getting into doctoral programs as well. I feel like that is a bit of a minefield if you don't come from a family where that's happened before, sometimes you really don't know where to start. 

And just lastly I want to add that sadly most academic literature on Afghanistan and Afghans in English is written by non-Afghans. My hope is that in the future we see more Afghan scholars and voices, and better representation of the community in academia. And I hope that in the near future I’ll be reading more research by Afghans about Afghanistan and the diaspora.